Sunday, April 03, 2022

Life Lately: The slap that was felt around the world

I mentioned The Lincoln Highway, Amor Towles’s brilliant new novel, two weeks ago. When I woke up to the news this week that Will Smith had hit Chris Rock at the Oscars, I began thinking about the book again.

We are introduced to Emmet on the book’s first page. He has just been released from a correctional facility and is being driven home by the warden. Before dropping Emmet off, the warden says to him:

“…from my time with you, I can tell that that boy’s death weighs heavily on your conscience. No one imagines what happened that night reflects either the spirit of malice or an expression of your character. It was the ugly side of chance”.

We find out later in the book that Emmet punched someone, one Jimmy, on the nose after he said mean things about Emmet’s father. Not unlike Chris Rock, Jimmy mocked someone who was important to Emmet – his dad. Like Will Smith, Emmet got upset and hit Jimmy on the face. And that’s where the stories diverge. Because in The Lincoln Highway, Jimmy falls back after a single punch, hits his head, and dies.

After Will Smith hit Chris Rock, he turned and strutted back to his chair. Chris Rock handled the hit as professionally as he could and completed his segment. The internet erupted in hot takes. People criticized violence while “understanding that Will Smith had been triggered”.

Through it all, I kept thinking we had just seen the handsome side of chance play out on a global stage.

The Academy later announced that they asked Will Smith to leave the Oscars after the slap but he refused. He was lucky. If the exact same action had resulted in a different outcome, say if the ugly side of chance caused Chris Rock to fall backwards, hit his head, and die – Will Smith would not have had a choice. He would have been removed from the event in handcuffs. He would now be facing a manslaughter charge. The public discourse would be completely different.

Same action. Different outcome. Vastly different consequences.

Outcomes matter in how our actions are judged. Will Smith assumed Chris Rock could take a hit to the face without dropping dead or becoming disoriented. That’s a lot to assume. It’s not always obvious when people are unhealthy. Unlike he assumed, and unlike we all sometimes assume, outcomes are not completely within our control. There is a lot of randomness at play. Many drunk drivers get off with just a fine and a driving ban every year. Others who have done essentially the same thing – drink and drive – create pain and loss by killing loved ones in car crashes and are sent to prison for several years. The difference? A pedestrian or other driver happened to encounter the drivers in the latter group.

Some actions are more likely to result in negative consequences than others. Several people have died from single punches. I’m not aware that anyone has died from receiving a letter communicating dissatisfaction with an inappropriate joke.

What’s the takeaway? Given our limited control over outcomes and consequences, we should avoid actions that are highly likely to have negative consequences.


What I’m currently reading: I’ll cheat a little and sneak in a movie here. I saw Armageddon (the 1998 film) again this week after reading that Bruce Willis was stepping away from his acting career due to aphasia. Following the announcement, Kevin Smith put out a tweet apologising for mocking Bruce Willis a few years ago. It reminded me of the apologies after Chadwick Boseman died. We really need to keep striving to be kinder as we don’t know what people are going through. 

What I’m currently listening to: Related to today’s thoughts on actions, outcomes, and consequences, Hidden Brain’s The Halo Effect explores how knowing how things turned out influences how we evaluate our past actions. I recommended this episode last year but took down the post in which I recommended it. I remembered it and listened to it again while writing this and it was clear why I liked it so much the first time.


Have a nice week!

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